Friday, September 24, 2010

DVRPC Board Retreat - What About Active Transportation?

Pro Walk/Pro Bike was an energizing experience, all the trends are pointing in the right direction and the movement for better bicycling and walking (Active Transportation) can only go forward. While the movement still needs to work on being more inclusive, we are getting better at it.

But participating in the DVRPC Board Retreat at the Ace Conference Center in Lafayette Hill brought me back to reality. Around here the Active Transportation movement must be wintering at Valley Forge.

The opening session was a presentation about the current transportation funding crisis in Pennsylvania. Basically to build everything in the 2035 Long Range plan transportation funding must double. The tolling on I-80 proposal has failed and the current political climate makes a hike in the gas tax highly unlikely. On the Jersey side the Transportation Trust Fund faces bankruptcy

But it was the breakout session that showed me how far we still needed to go.

People started talking about trends and were saying the right things, young people moving back to urban areas and are delaying their driver licenses. On the opposite end of the spectrum a lack of transportation options affects our ability to age in place. The new economy may end the flight to the exurbs. The region is almost totally built out. Cities and inner suburbs share the same problems.

But when we started talking about where the region should invest in the future the conversation starting taking a more conservative route.

My mention of how transportation can affect of obesity and diabetes generated laughter - Some were snickering, but for others there was a realization that some in the room suffered from those disorders. (My BMI = 28)

The question that DVRPC Technical Services Director Charles Dougherty asked next was what three mega-projects should the region invest in.

Kathleen from SEPTA went first and came up with the most sensible project - a single fare collection media for the entire region (think EZ Pass for transit).

But when others listed their preferred mega-project the answers were more predictable. Widen I-95*, the Schuylkill Expressway and Route 422. Turn US 202 into an outer beltway from Doylestown to Delaware. Extend the Broad St Subway to the Navy Yard and build a new bridge over the Delaware River (How empty is the Betsy Ross Bridge?). A show of hands indicated a panel vote for the top 3 and most of the proposals had at least some of the participants concur.

My selection for a mega-project was also predictable - Complete the regional trail network. This could be completed at a fraction of the cost of the other projects. Charles Dougherty asks for votes - silence in the room.

The final vote - Fare Collection, I-95, Broad Street Subway.

It got worse when the breakout sessions came back for review, one group actually advocated for not spending transportation dollars for trails and funneling that tiny pot of money to interstates instead. Of the four breakout sessions our panel was the only one that proposed transit projects in our top 3.

As I was hearing this it came to mind that I should have proposed another idea for a mega-project - No more mega-projects. Keep our current transportation network in good repair. Direct funds throughout the region to solve community transportation problems and improve transportation choices.

So are the visionaries who attended Pro Walk/Pro Bike living in a bubble? Are the transportation officials who were at the DVRPC Retreat living in another? The reality is that neither faction has the tools to sell their case to the public. Active transportation advocates are by necessity message savvy but lack the resources to reach a general audience while transportation officials have the resources but have never figured out a way to make people care about infrastructure.

Can we talk here?

*I have been advised by a City transportation official that the current main I-95 project is mostly a reconstruction project with some widening elements which has been mandated by the FHWA - Based on the discussion during the voting, the group seemed to be making a statement supporting projects along the entire corridor, which includes capacity building projects such as the I-95/PA Turnpike Interchange and the Scudder Falls Bridge which of course includes the bike/ped path that we advocated for.


Jen said...

I feel your pain! As a transportation planner I've observed the same thing in my own region. I think the problem is that the officials, decision-makers and those who hold the purse strings don't actually practice the theories they preach or promote. They are not living in walkable communities or cities. They drive everywhere and do not use transit or bike. Its hard to gain perspective on what makes a well-rounded transportation system when your reality is driving from A to B to C in your single-occupant vehicle. All the other stuff sounds nice but when it comes down to it they don't think its important and are not willing to sacrifice to make it a reality.

Andy B from Jersey said...
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Andy B from Jersey said...

I totally agree with you John that there really doesn't need to be any mega projects and instead the money should be focused on a "fix it first" strategy.

I also agree with Jen but I also propose a concurring hypothesis. Young, progressive transportation planners never get into the planning system in these parts of the country. When they try to propose spending money on so called "alternative transportation" projects, they must do so far above and beyond what is normal due to the nature of the status quo system. They must advocate in a way that often push the boundaries of what some conservatives would call professional and are either dismissed as wackos or are terminated altogether.

Just a thought. I know there are plenty of exceptions but I know it happens to many planners out there and they learned just to keep there mouths shut if they want to keep there jobs.